Gunnar Bergstrom, the Swede who was once one of the Khmer Rouge’s most ardent supporters, told a gathering of high-school students in Phnom Penh yesterday how his infamous 1978 visit to Pol Pot’s Cambodia had been a mistake.
Bergstrom, who met Pol Pot and returned to Sweden praising the Democratic Kampuchea government, admitted to having misgivings that he didn’t voice when he saw the abandoned city of Phnom Penh.
“We wanted to believe in the Khmer Rouge,” he said, confessing that he was blinded by “Maoist glasses” and a desire for a successful communist nation to exist in the world.
“It was a propaganda tour,” Bergstrom recalled of his two-week-long visit as a representative of the communist Sweden-Kampuchea Friendship Association.
“They must have taken us to the one cooperative where people actually had food,” he said, describing seeing healthy-looking workers.
Just months after Bergstrom returned home, Pol Pot’s regime collapsed, and the scale of the cruelties people had suffered compelled the Swede to reverse his previous support – to the dismay of his communist colleagues.
He has spent many of the years since 1979 atoning for his error; that culminated in his 2008 return to Cambodia, when he apologised for his previous support, and visited sites of mass killings and torture.
Bergstrom’s talk yesterday, while again acknowledging his mistake, focused more on the historical events that led to the Khmer Rouge’s rise, and on the need for people to learn from the past.
He also showed a collage of images of children who were murdered at the infamous S-21 prison – now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Memorial Museum – many of them younger than those in the audience.
The students reacted to the lecture, which was sponsored by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, with a slew of questions.
When one student asked what Pol Pot could have done differently to make the revolution successful, Bergstrom replied: “Forget it,” warning that no rapid communist revolution could happen peacefully.
And when another asked Bergstrom for his recommendations for the next generation, he answered: “Learn history.”
“We can learn more in person from people who were in the real situation than from what we read online,” one student, Lux, said after the lecture.
“My first trip back was a big forgiveness tour,” Bergstrom said in an interview after the lecture, adding that this trip was different. “I’m kind of married to Cambodia now.”